The workplace should be a sanctuary of privacy, pride and above all professionalism. No employer can discriminate against a worker because of their age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability. Or retaliate against them for asserting their rights. That includes job applicants, who might not even realize companies are victimizing them.

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protects a broader class of workers from employment discrimination than federal law. Victims not only can receive back pay, reinstatement and snubbed promotions but also compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages and attorney’s fees and costs. Some suffer discrimination before they ever step foot in an office or factory.

Improper interview questions

Prepping for a job interview can be stressful enough without having the deck stacked against you. An employer might easily see race and gender in a face-to-face meeting, but some discrimination requires more subtle inquiry. Even a simple question can ask for information an interviewer could use to disqualify you.

Protect yourself during an interview by recognizing questions that go beyond the scope of your education, skills and experience. Here are some of the biggest no-nos:

  • Sexual orientation. You should not have to disclose your gender identity, identify as heterosexual, gay or bisexual or answer lifestyle questions designed to elicit an answer.
  • Children. Number or ages of children, child-care provisions, birth control or pregnancy are off-limits.
  • Criminal record. California generally prohibits employers from asking about arrests. A conviction should not disqualify you generally unless it relates to your job duties.
  • Religion. An interviewer can inquire whether you are available to work Sundays but cannot ask about practicing religion or religious holidays.
  • Nationality. Employers can ask about your eligibility to work in a certain country but not where you were born.
  • Language. Employers cannot ask whether English is your first language but can inquire about other languages you can speak or read.
  • Own or rent. They cannot ask about your living conditions or property and must ask permission for credit history.
  • Drugs. “What illegal drugs have you used?” or “have you ever been to alcohol rehabilitation?” are red flegs.
  • Health. Any questions about medical conditions, job-related injuries or disabilities.

Meanwhile, age is a convenient topic for an employer to broach, but that, too, is risky. Questions about date of birth, graduation years or elementary school time.

Discrimination often affects applicants 40 and older when their employer learns their age. In a study of restaurant hiring, online applicants who did not have to give their age were more likely to receive an interview than in-person applicants who were discriminated against because of their appearance.

Federal law allows employers to ask an applicant their age, but a worker also can use that request as evidence in an age discrimination lawsuit.

Ensuring fairness

FEHA and other state laws such as the California Family Rights Act and the California Equal Pay act forbid employment discrimination and harassment. But several counties and cities also have local laws. San Francisco and Santa Cruz prohibit discrimination against a worker based on their height or weight.

You should be able to earn a living and have access to the same pay and opportunities as your colleagues. Accountability is critical to creating a level playing field for all workers.

Employment law is multifaceted, and time is critical if you believe your employer discriminated against you. An experienced lawyer can help you file a complaint with the right state agency to help pursue the compensation and justice you deserve.